Friday, July 25, 2014

Seven Literary Lectures of a Very Brief Nature (including, "How to Interpret Mansfield Park")

Watercolor by Diana Sperling (The family at dinner)

1. Let’s not be ridiculous

People call Mansfield Park a “controversial” book because Fanny is passive and quiet, and accuse Jane Austen of suggesting that passivity is the way to get a man. How silly. If we applied this logic to the other books, we should accuse Miss Austen of also teaching that the way to win a husband is to accuse his father of murder (Northanger Abbey), be overly gullible in the presence of flattering fellows who tell lies (Pride and Prejudice), or wait until your crush’s current date acquires a head-wound (Persuasion).

Watercolor by Diana Sperling (Breaking in the donkeys)

2. How to interpret Mansfield Park

Speaking of Mansfield Park, I must admit that I once considered it Miss Austen’s weakest novel. In part, this is because I was like so many other young girls who read for the romance, but never notice the subtler satire. It is a bit startling to realize that Miss Austen is poking fun at even the romantic developments that once struck me merely as sweet. Jane Austen sees through people. Even the ones who fall in love (I would like to say more on this topic, but it requires its own post, and I promised that these seven lectures would remain brief). If we accept the idea that Jane Austen is trying to write about different kinds of people, even the ones who do not fit our modern notion of a heroine, then Mansfield Park is delightful. Overall, it is a well-handled piece (more developed than Sense and Sensibility, say). The way to read this novel is to accept Fanny as a flawed character and read her story as the tale of what life is like for someone with her peculiar weaknesses. After all, Lizzy Bennet and Emma Woodhouse, who think a little too highly of their own abilities, are still able to achieve happy endings. Why shouldn’t Fanny, whose flaw is the converse one of excessive timidity and shyness, also deserve to muddle into happiness? 

Watercolor by Diana Sperling (Fighting for the shuttlecock)

3: What’s romantic about that?

Jane Austen’s books are not really romances novels. Not like the ones today. What modern romance would allow the hero to fall in love with the heroine simply because she was so flattering as to like him first (Northanger Abbey)? What romance novelist would comment dryly that because the hero sat around telling the heroine about his broken heart, such repeated conversations naturally resulted in a transfer of affections to her (Mansfield Park)?  

Watercolor by Diana Sperling (A game of chess)

4. A novel that will help you to better appreciate Northanger Abbey 

Have you ever happened upon Francis Hodgson’s Burnett’s A Lady of Quality (available free HERE)? It was published in 1896, but set in the Seventeenth Century and written largely in the Gothic style of Austen’s day.  Basically, this story is so rich in melodrama that it drips lard. Castles, Diamonds, “rich brocades,” death, disgrace, sin, daggers, reprobate men, male and female beauties—it’s all here. The heroine begins life as a fiercely strong-willed, ferociously self-centered beauty who reforms into a beacon of light and goodness. It fascinates me that the book maintains an elevated moral tone on the one hand, with its theme of redemption, yet it also seems written to titillate. The descriptions of the breathtakingly beautiful heroine’s physical attributes (as well as those of one of the male characters) are rather sensual, and they are repeated far more often than necessary. The love scenes are also suggestive. It helps me understand why parents used to be disapproving of dime-store novels. But then, of course, we moderns are also guilty of mixing titillation with a supposedly uplifting moral message in our own entertainment too, aren't we?

This kind of book (in which the heroine is remarkably good at everything, and every event is six times the size of life) helps make the satire in Northanger Abbey all the funnier.

Watercolor by Diana Sperling
(Murdering flies: the mistress and maid together)

5. Miss Austen was not a Victorian

In Mansfield Park, Mary Crawford makes a number of jokes that are intended to show the reader that she lacks true refinement of mind. One of them is a pun about how, when dining with members of the admiralty, she saw a great many "rears and vices." Such inclusions are, ahem, a reminder that the Regency period was a bridging point between the more boisterous and vulgar Eighteenth Century and the more mincing ways of the Victorians.

Watercolor by Diana Sperling

6. Science experiments of the Nineteenth Century

Presumably Jane Austen was not particularly interested in science. However, her contemporary, Diana Sperling, painted a picture of a group of young people playing with static electricity. See below:

This reminds me of a scene in one of Laura Ingalls Wilder's books (the teenage Laura goes to a birthday party at which someone conducts a similar demonstration).

7. Miss Sperling's Watercolors

Jane Austen satirized through the written word, but Diana Sperling did so with her paint brush. Aren't her watercolors delightful? You can obtain a book of her work HERE. Now that I have found these images, I recall reading that the one of three girls in jaunty red cloaks inspired some of the costumes for the BBC Pride and Prejudice

Linking-up for Seven Quick Takes!

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